Distorted, disturbing, yet vividly psychedelic. Helsinki-based freelance illustrator MILENA HUHTA pours her inner conflicting emotions and mixes it with splashes of fantasy sci-fi, old school anime and folklore.
Hi Milena, tell us a bit about yourself. Just a short introduction, where are you from, what you studied, what led you to the world of art?
I’m a 29-year-old freelance illustrator currently based in Helsinki. I was born here to a Polish mom and a Finnish dad. I studied graphic design in the Aalto University of Art, Design and Architecture. Those studies also led me to live in Seoul, South Korea, for a while.
After my finishing school I worked as a full-time graphic designer (most recently for the lifestyle company Marimekko) while juggling freelance illustration at nights and weekends. I finally made the big decision a couple months back to go full on with my freelance. It was scary but I’m so happy about the opportunity!
My dad is an artist who paints with oil paints using traditional techniques, so I guess I was pretty much born into a life surrounded by constant paint stains and tools to utilize. I’ve been drawing ever since I was a toddler. I would constantly look at art books; one of my favourites was Doré’s illustrations for Dante’s Divine Comedy. Haha, it’s pretty grim for child but I still love those pictures very much.
Colours and emotions plays a big part in your illustrations. Where do you draw your inspiration from?
My inspiration sources are vast yet sometimes very trivial. I get inspired by large-scale things such as fashion, fantasy/sci-fi, dreams and folklore. I’m also into old school anime/manga (especially shoujo) and gothic music and literature.
I’m a very visual person whose mind is pretty much a constant mess of images that I try to make sense of. Often I just get hit by images and ideas from my subconscious that I need to write down straight away as I have a notoriously bad memory. I later on use those notes for my work.
I love beautiful images that have an underlying feeling of something not being quite right. I always want to bring that element of an unsettling weirdness into my work. I try to portray inner conflicting emotions and what it feels like to be a female.
What has shaped and influenced you over the years? Do you feel this reflects in your art?
Oh, my life experience reflects in my art for sure!
I was a horridly difficult teen filled with the most brutal angst, haha. I feel like all that hardship was good, not only in the sense that it made me the person I am today, but understanding a steep range of emotions benefits me greatly when drawing my characters.
Luckily, I’ve always been supported by my parents to do art which I’m very grateful for. I don’t think I would be here without that. Drawing has always been a way of escapism for me; like a portal to another world.
Being into Japanese anime and manga was a big influence for me too. They have really fascinating and imaginative themes and oftentimes the quality is amazingly good. I’m also very inspired by Japanese artist like Takato Yamamoto, Junko Mizuno, Yoshitaka Amano, Kuniyoshi Kaneko and Aquirax Uno.
What materials do you enjoy working with the most?
My range of materials doesn’t vary much. I always start off by sketching with a pencil after which I ink the image on a clean paper using liners. That inking process is very satisfying as the hard part of creation is over and the mechanical part of the work starts. So, I often get to enjoy movies or podcasts while inking. It’s enormously rewarding to see a messy sketch turn into clean crisp lines with detailing. I’m a perfectionist so I enjoy the purity and cleanliness of inking.
I don’t care so much about computer work which is curious since I choose to color my works digitally. The digital coloring takes usually more time than I’d like to spend on it.
Do you identify with the subjects that you draw?
I definitely do. I see my subjects as being different shards of a broken mirror that reflects womanhood, archetypes of different moods. I pour my yearning for the other worldly into them.
My subjects are very vulnerable yet strong. Everyone has a darker shadowy part in their persona with lurking monsters and I like to bring out those demons a little closer to the surface.
I’m definitely rooting for all the ducklings who feel like outcasts, having been one myself. Individuals like that often turn out to be the most beautiful and inspiring ones so those are the ones I like to draw the most.
I find perfection and facades in people boring. I admire individuals who are raw and sincere about their struggles in life since it’s inescapable that everyone has some amount of hurt. Why go through this life pretending?
What do you do when you run out of ideas and get stuck?
I’m not sure if this sounds smug but it doesn’t really happen to me. I have a huge list of different imagery and scenarios that always help me out. Even if it’s a commissioned piece I can utilize some of those images I’ve been playing with in my head. I constantly browse for inspirational images and am utterly addicted to Pinterest and Tumblr. For example, I might see a certain type of face or clothing that I fall in love with and would really like to incorporate into my work. So I do.
With commissioned work, the brief helps me out a lot. I like to bring my own vision to the mixture and think of my own take on the given subject. It’s beneficial that I’m endlessly interested in so many things!
What’s the best thing about being an illustrator?
Definitely not the financial instability, hah!
One of the major benefits of being a freelancer is that you make your own schedules and by doing so you are free to work from anywhere in the world.
I’m such a night owl so being able to dictate my work hours is crucial. The 9 to 5 never worked for me as I’m a complete brain-dead zombie in the mornings. My most effective time window starts around 6pm and lasts until midnight.
Being an illustrator allows me to dwell in an inspirational swamp of images, movie, exhibitions and everything creative. You should be able to consume culture and life experience as much as possible to make your works richer in content.
I also love the fact that I’m lucky enough to do this and that the only direction in my skill development is up & to get better!
Other than art, what else are you passionate about?
As I’m writing this, I’m traveling from Berlin to Warsaw. I love traveling because it enables me to meet different inspiring people and see new places. Just yesterday I met a police officer from Kansas on the streets of Berlin and we chatted briefly. It’s so interesting to meet people who are so different from you and to hear their take on life.
I recently travelled to Leipzig for the legendary Wave Gotik Treffen festival and it was an unforgettable experience full of the most beautiful people. Gothic subculture and style inspires me a lot since it strives to differ from the masses and is so entwined with beauty. There was a sense of oneness floating around the whole city — something that I’ve never experienced before on such a large scale.
When I’m home I spend a lot of time with my precious cats Lulu & Faust taking care of them and my plant collection. My dream home would be a complete jungle: just a bed and crazy amount of greenery everywhere!
Besides these things, I do Krav Maga. I’m quite passionate about it since it makes me feel empowered as a woman. It’s a sad thing that we have to learn how to defend ourselves from the cruel patriarchal reality and though the responsibility should be on the aggressors, it’s good to have a few tricks up your sleeve.
What style of music do you like the listen to when you are creating?
Mostly gothic music ranging from deathrock to coldwave. My favorite bands include The Cure, Christian Death and She Past Away. I love anything by the genius Nick Cave.
Depending on which stage of the creation process I’m in, I might listen to atmospheric ambient music too or super-energetic J-Pop, like Perfume.
Other than music, I’m completely addicted to podcasts. True crime podcasts are my guilty pleasure and the McElroy brothers make me laugh with their ‘Adventure Zone’ and ‘My Brother, My Brother and Me’ podcasts.
What’s next for you?
I’m planning to expand my medium from just paper to human skin in the near future. Meaning, I’m practicing how to tattoo! I’m excited to take my art into another dimension. I have a full-sleeve dragon tattoo on my left arm that liberated me from a lifetime worry of people judging me based on my scars. I want to help others feel the same way whatever their story is.
This is not to say I will abandon traditional illustration. I view this as just another carte blanche for me to draw on. The learning of something completely new scares but also excites me. I’m not too worried though as I have an amazingly talented mentor so I’m in good hands.